‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’. The man or woman may be statesmanlike,out of their depth or just opportunistic. The Covid crisis has tested leadership around the world and the jury is still more or less out on who best rose to the challenge because the entity we were dealing with is still far from fully understood and the final whistle is a long way off. The upheaval caused by the event that effectively put an end to the lockdown, the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, was also an hour of reckoning for political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.
First up to account of course was Donald Trump. The word he stumbled on to sum up what happened was ‘sad’. Compounding his inability to find fitting words, he went on to claim the victim was happily ‘looking down from heaven’ because of improving employment rates among the black community.. His performance made an interesting contrast with the way his predecessor dealt with a parallel event back in 2012. Obama’s words were measured and dignified and brought moral authority to the situation. When the grand jury acquitted the police officer who killed eighteen year old unarmed black man, Michael Brown, during an altercation, Obama’s first call was for restraint within a speech that acknowledged an endemic problem, the challenges of policing and the imperative to improve relations between police and communities. His speech did nor resonate with those who wanted something more radical from a black president. Some did not take his counsel but his words did not ignite the country, let alone spread flames of fury across the Atlantic.
The killing of George Floyd is not quite the same as the killing of Michael Brown. There is a video recording of the killing of George Floyd and it is clear he posed no risk to the police who stood around him. However, the context is not that different in the end. America as Obama stated in 2012 and indeed on many other occasions is a country ‘of laws’. Laws not always observed either by civilians or law enforcers. He described the tension between the police and poor communities which were, more often than not, black as ‘a slow- rolling crisis’. He looked away from the issue of colour per se to the issue of poverty as the underlying trigger for crime and the confrontations it led to with law enforcement. For Obama, the priority was ‘to lift up these communities, to give those kids opportunities’. Otherwise, ‘ we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflict and the occasional riots in the streets’.
Speaking about the killing of George Floyd, Obama has called for ‘practical solutions’ and ‘laws that could be implemented and monitored’ He urges the American electorate to vote for ‘the change’ that will make that possible. In other words, he is re-purposing the message and mantra of his own first presidential campaign back in 2008 to support the election of Joe Biden in November and drive Donald Trump from the White House. One may ask how Biden, elderly, uncharismatic and white could achieve more than his opposite on all three counts did over an eight year presidency?
The Minneapolis video shows a black man being suffocated under the knee of a white policeman while three others looked on passively. One of them might be described as Asian American and the other as Middle Eastern American except it is very likely that they would all describe themselves as simply Americans. It is black people alone to whom the compound designation, African-American, is applied, whether they chose it or not and irrespective of how many generations their family has been in America. Like most Americans, most black people do not fit any binary profile. Barack Obama is African-American but his mother was a white woman with English and Irish ancestry. Michelle, his wife was the descendent of black slaves but also of white slave-owners. Not all black people are happy to adopt the African-American designation. Many of course are because it keeps their backstory to the fore. So are those who support their struggle for equality because identity matters in any ideological struggle. Victim and oppressor classes cannot overlap without compromising the argument.
It seems strange that black people should still be left behind in a country that is so ethnically mixed and indeed ethically blended. In fact, there are many indicators of progress since the signal advances of the Sixties. Since police officers are drawn from the populations they police, there was every chance that a black policeman would have been in the group that arrested George Floyd. Would things have been different if this had been the case? Probably not. According to the Washington Post, US police kill an average of three people a day, either by shooting or some other means. Strange as it seems, ‘increasing diversity does not lead to less shootings’, according to California State University, Pan African Studies Professor, Melina Abdullah. This is borne out by Professor Joseph Cesario of Michigan State University who states that ‘ most of the shootings of black suspects by police are done by black officers, not white ones…. because black officers are drawn from the same population that they police’.
This is not to argue that race is not an issue but it is an issue that is compounded and perhaps underpinned by poverty and class. As noted, there are black people in American business, professional life, politics and academia who do not identify with the ideology of BLM. They are the ones who are likely to describe themselves as American without qualification. Black economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell and Larry Elder, author, attorney and broadcaster, lead a long list of black commentators who define the problem for black people primarily in terms of social disadvantage rather than racial profile. Their central thesis could be summed up in the words of Barack Obama, when presidential candidate, community organizer and activist, in 2008 where he spoke of the effect of fatherlessness on black children. They were, as a consequence, he said, ‘five times more likely to end up in poverty, nine times more likely to drop out of school and twenty times more likely to go to prison’. Since then the percentage of black families led by a single parent has continued to rise. Today 75%, of black children in the US are raised by a single parent, most usually their mother, as against 37% of whites. When a white commentator ventures to make such points today, they are likely to be branded racist. When a black commentator makes them, he or she may be branded an ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘a coconut’, black on the outside, white in the inside. Such terms are not generally considered racist but racist is what they are.
The line from the kind of poverty that is helpless and hopeless runs straight to crime and addiction. Race is not the stand out, stand alone factor we are often led to believe it is. According to the US Department of Justice statistics, in 2018, the offending rate for general homicide is eight times higher for African Americans than for whites and the victim rate is six times higher. Because of the prevalence of guns among civilians in America, the police work in a tense and febrile atmosphere. About fifty police officers die in the course of duty every year. That puts them in a milieu of hazard, second only to warfare. Like soldiers they too can be led into ambushes. In 2016, five police officers were killed in Dallas when they were ambushed by a black military veteran called Micah Johnson.
This is the context in which this tragedy should be understood. It is a context that speaks of some very fundamental societal dysfunction. Race is but one aspect. Poverty, a culture of dependency, poor social and economic planning, lack of good quality education tailored to disadvantaged children are equally issues to be addressed, issues that affect other ethnicities too, it must be said, including poor whites.
Instead of pausing to evaluate, both the media and liberal political establishment are intent on exploiting George Floyd’s death. In doing so they are arguably dog whistling to lawless and anarchic elements and escalating divisive anger and outrage by presenting this tragedy in terms of straightforward racist hatred. When the victim is black, or belongs to some other minority identity, there is a rush to conflate the crime into a defining political moment by leftist, identitarian politicians. Yet, other deaths are downplayed with equal determination, their racial and ethnic dimensions denied or concealed. Not all atrocities are fanned across social and mainstream media or bring protestors to the streets because not all atrocities serve the agenda of the current holders of power.
Since Donald Trump came to power, identitarian issues have shot out to ambush him every step of the way. However, the race issue in relation to indigent as opposed to emigrant people of colour has only just now shot out to trip him. The historic,social and economic question of race has been with America in one form or another for four or more centuries. The last four years have not created it. By the end of the Obama presidency, it was gender politics that dominated the social justice agenda. When Obama supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, it was emigration along with gender and womens’ equality that preoccupied the Democrats. Since then, these platforms have not drawn enough political blood from the Trump presidency to be counted on to unseat him in 2020. The George Floyd killing, which shone a merciless light on the President’s lack of moral gravitas and authority, must be mined for every possible electoral advantage. With November looming, it is a sort of last chance saloon for the Democrats.
The political and ideological apocalypse that brought Trump to power in 2016 plunged the liberal left in America and beyond into such collective shock that it scarcely seems they have moved much beyond the early stages of grieving over the last four years. Vacillating between denial and anger, they have dissipated political capital in trying to bring his presidency to an early end, leaving them now with nothing more fresh or visionary or engaging to offer the electorate than an elderly, scatter-minded sidekick from the Obama years.
It is not only in the US that the Floyd killing is being appropriated as a political flag of convenience. Our virtue signalling politicians, some of whom objected to the travelling community moving into their constituencies, are coming on board too. Leo Varadkar, says he intends to drive racism out of Ireland. If it is such an issue why was it not raised in his recent policy discussions with other parties? Was it of less import than enabling county councils to mark out pedestrian crossings in rainbow stripes or permitting children under sixteen to change their sex? It is pure virtue signalling. But it may be a virtue signal too far when it effectively ends a lockdown, we were all told was non-negotiable, even to the point of allowing pubs without a licence to serve food, to pretend they are restaurants so they can open sooner than planned. All lives matter. But those who march in defiance of measures to protect lives in a pandemic appear to believe that some lives matter less than others. Can the same be said for those that permit them to do so?